Gandalf – Journey to an Imaginary Land / To Another Horizon / Magic Theatre

Ouch! Make sure you have your headphones turned down, as the blastoff at the beginning of Departure, the first track on Austrian artist Gandalf’s 1980 debut album Journey to an Imaginary Land, is somewhat deafening. But it’s an ideal starting point for this solo artist’s canon, a series of “musical landscape paintings” each as vibrant as the last. Some have credited him as being an early New Age artist, but Gandalf himself doesn’t see it that way, believing he just wrote what came naturally to him, without trying to forge a new genre.

Though the most simplistic – and, at 45 minutes, the shortest – of the three albums reviewed here, Journey to an Imaginary Land is effortlessly delightful; ideal meditation music that conjures up peaceful vistas. Gandalf plays all instruments himself, but unlike, say, Mike Oldfield, Gandalf’s timbre consists of mainly synthesised sounds, with a healthy dash of acoustic guitar to keep the work grounded. If there’s any fault in this first album, it’s that it is maybe a little insubstantial, a tad on the twee side. Melodies exist here, but don’t necessarily grab the listener. A valiant first effort, nonetheless.

These albums were reissued by Esoteric Recordings some months ago, but the second album Visions never surfaced. With this, we skip ahead to To Another Horizon, a far more polished album. After a slow introduction, March of No Reason brings us much proggier fare, with a more established melody and odd time signatures, but retaining the signature synthesised sound. At times, this sounds like something straight out of Eloy.

A sci-fi concept album, To Another Horizon is perhaps much darker than its predecessor but is tinged with flecks of hope in every track. Gandalf’s ability to inject emotion into pieces such as Requiem for a Planet is uncanny. His learning curve for writing ‘tunes’ is also remarkable, with pieces such as Flight of the Crystal Ships seeming positively catchy. His grip on percussion has improved as well, with plenty of drum fills that will keep rock fans entertained. Rather than sounding like New Age, this is progressive rock with New Age tinges here and there. The twelve-minute title suite on side two shows off Gandalf’s chops on the guitar and keyboard, and also betrays an Indian influence with the inclusion of a sitar.

Magic Theatre, Gandalf’s fourth album, sees the artist playing on an unprecedented number of instruments: electric and acoustic guitars, synthesisers, Mellotron, organ, sitar, Vocoder, wind chimes, rhythm machines, bass, gongs, drums, polyphonic synthesisers and percussion. As if this weren’t enough, his writing style becomes even more complex and symphonic here than ever before. Intended as a suite to enjoy in one sitting, this 52-minute album is divided into an intro and an outro, and seven pieces in the middle titled the “Seven Doors”.

The album begins triumphantly with The Corridor of the Seven Doors, a track that manages to beautifully straddle the line between New Age and progressive rock and still give the abundant sense of both genres. The “Seven Doors” themselves are something of a mixed bag, with quiet ambient tracks like Reflections from Childhood and Beyond the Wall of Ignorance, experiments like the bass-heavy Loss of Identity in the Labyrinth of Delusions, and more ‘full band’ pieces like Peace of Mind and The Fountain of Real Joy.

The centrepiece of the album, however, has to be the 13-minute spectacle Castles of Sand (aren’t they called sandcastles?). After a sombre two-minute introduction, the main theme is played loud, before giving way to a lengthy melancholy piano solo. Other instruments are occasionally added, but the piano remains key throughout. The tension of the piece never wanes, and by the time the main theme returns, you’ll wonder how thirteen minutes went so quickly.

With the exclusion of Visions, Esoteric have missed a vital step in the evolution of Gandalf’s work. Such a steep learning curve is rarely seen, so to be missing a portion the curve is a travesty that I hope Esoteric will soon correct. Meanwhile, if you feel like filling yourself in, and don’t feel like forking out the $113 that Amazon would like you to pay for a second-hand copy, you can simply find the full album below. Visions aside, this is a gorgeous set of albums that will please both progressive and New Age fans alike. These were the springboard for Gandalf’s proficient career, featuring 32 studio albums and a live album featuring Steve Hackett. Are you ready to journey to this imaginary land?

Journey to an Imaginary Land

01. Departure (4:56)
02. Foreign Landscape (9:25)
03. The Peaceful Village (7:41)
04. March Across the Endless Plain (10:42)
05. The Fruitful Gardens (6:09)
06. Sunset at the Crystal Lake (6:34)

Total Time – 45:23

To Another Horizon
01. March of No Reason (7:17)
02. Natural Forces Getting Out of Control (10:17)
03. Requiem for a Planet (5:17)
04. Flight of the Crystal Ships (4:31)
To Another Horizon:
05. a) The Divine Message (2:26)
06. b) Change of Consciousness (5:53)
07. c) Creation of a New World (3:28)
08. Cosmic Balance (4:37)
09. Peace Without End (4:59)

Total Time – 48:40

Magic Theatre
01. The Corridor of the Seven Doors (5:49)
02. Reflections from Childhood (4:05)
03. Castles of Sand (13:13)
04. Loss of Identity in the Labyrinth of Delusions (3:15)
05. The Magic Mirror (3:52)
06. Beyond the Wall of Ignorance (7:31)
07. Peace of Mind (4:52)
08. The Fountain of Real Joy (5:33)
09. Exit (3:37)

Total Time – 51:42

Journey to an Imaginary Land
Gandalf – All Instruments

To Another Horizon
Gandalf – Guitar, Synthesizer, Mellotron, Organ, Sitar, Vocoder, Wind Chimes, Electronic Drums & Percussion
Heinz Hummer – Bass
Egon Gröger – Drums
Robert Julian Horky – Flute
Peter Aschenbrenner – Grand Piano & Organ

Magic Theatre
Gandalf – Guitar, Synthesizer, Mellotron, Organ, Sitar, Vocoder, Wind Chimes, Electronic Drums & Percussion
Robert Julian Horky – Flute (tracks 1,2,6 & 7)
Heinz Hummer – Bass (track 7)
Egon Gröger- Drums (tracks 1,3,7,8 & 9)
Peter Aschenbrenner – Piano & Saxophone (tracks 3,4,7,8 & 9)

Label: Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red
Catalogue#: WECLEC 2571/2556/2557
Release Dates: 1st July 2016 & 3rd February 2017

Gandalf – Website | Facebook
Cherry Red Records Info – Journey to an Imaginary Land | To Another Horizon | Magic Theatre